The quality of our democracy

Alex | Sep 30, 2009
David Welsh argues that the foundations of South Africa's new democracy are fragile and threatened by one-party domination.

Single-party dominance may be South Africa’s fate. This would not be inconsistent with what has occurred elsewhere in Africa; nor would it be surprising given our authoritarian background and racial tensions. However, it does not bode well for democracy. Democracy rests on the premise that there is a realistic possibility of changing the ruling party, and few deeply divided societies manage to achieve this. Mbeki says that once South Africa has ‘normalised’, people will vote along ideological rather than colour lines, but international evidence suggests that this is unlikely. It is in the very nature of liberation movements such as the ANC to seek hegemonic power. Its quest for control is now far advanced, and the dividing line between state and party has become blurred. Can liberation movements convert themselves into political parties operating in a pluralistic democratic framework? Marina Ottaway, in an article written in 1991, was pessimistic: liberation movements stress unity and, unlike political parties, they ‘are engaged in a Manichean struggle which must end in absolute victory’. Once they have seized power, the change is ‘just and irreversible’. There is no great distance from such views to the belief that all opposition is illegitimate. The ANC’s liberation movement character is discernible in its tendency to equate itself with the nation, its quest for hegemonic control, and its belief in the divine righteousness of its cause. What are the prospects for the future? In a monograph published in the Yale Law Journal (1998), Amy Chua writes that unless black economic prospects improve dramatically, the outcome is likely to be ‘an ethnically fuelled anti-market backlash, actions aimed at eliminating the white population, or a retreat from democracy’. These warnings, though overdrawn, contain a grim kernel of reality. Poverty and unemployment are massive problems, which are not helped by the ANC-imposed rigidities of our labour market. Frustration at the slow pace of black economic empowerment could eventually tempt the government to institute even more rigorous affirmative action programmes or expropriate property. Contrary to ANC belief, liberals agree that there is a pressing need to reduce inequalities. Their disagreements concern means, not ends, and reflect a concern that some policies to promote greater equality may endanger democratic freedoms. To regenerate democracy, we might usefully recall Mandela’s description of tribal meetings, which ‘would continue until some kind of consensus was reached’. Democracy meant that all men were heard; a minority was not to be crushed by a majority.

South Africa has always been an improbable candidate for stable, effective democracy. Not only did the harshly authoritarian background of apartheid not provide a good training ground for the give-and-take that sustainable democracy requires, but it also strained racial tensions to breaking point.

Sharp conflicts, especially of a racial/ethnic nature, overlapping with deeply impacted inequalities, are not only an unpromising matrix for a democratic regime, but they are also a highly combustible mix. It is always a salutary antidote to complacency about the quality of our democracy to ask the question: how many deeply divided societies have been able to sustain democratic polities, and how have they managed to do so? The answer to the first question is: very few. The reply to the second question is: by means that have barely been considered in South Africa.

Democracy rests upon the premise that elections offer the reasonable possibility of ousting a government or changing the make-up of a ruling coalition. Single-party dominance - as in Mexico and India for long periods - does not chime with effective democracy. Adam Pzreworski, no doubt with some hyperbole, says 'no country in which a party wins 60 per cent of the vote twice in a row is a democracy'.

Single-party dominance may be South Africa's fate. This would certainly not be out of line with what has commonly occurred elsewhere in Africa, where ruling parties led by aging despots have clung on to power for 20, even 30, years before removal either by the military or by a convulsive election.

Our Constitution is unequivocal: a maximum of two five-year terms for the President. It is unlikely that President Thabo Mbeki will try to change the Constitution to give himself a third term, but the possibility that he will have a strong hand in ensuring that an ideological clone succeeds him should not be discounted. ANC control nationally, provincially (at least seven of the nine provinces, and probably more after the 2004 election), and local government in all of the major cities and towns for an indefinite period (20 years?) is a distinct possibility.

A breakup of the Alliance after 2004 is also a possibility, but it is doubtful that it would end the ANC's hegemony. The dangers of single-party dominance are considerable. Some are in evidence already: political sclerosis, contempt for constitutional restraints, cronyism and corruption, arrogance, and attacks on (racial/ethnic) minorities that are useful scapegoats for policy failures.

Mbeki has often said that once South Africa has 'normalised' (meaning presumably that the legacy of apartheid has been overcome) voters will vote along ideological, rather than colour, lines. Others have contended that race or colour have not been primary determinants of voter preference in past elections: interests have been the real ones. This is a disingenuous argument since historically interests have long been wrapped in colour or ethnicity (or in a combination of the two). Moreover, what difference does this make to electoral outcomes? In two national and two local government elections since 1994 the pattern of voting has cleaved closely to colour lines. A Markinor/SABC poll, published in December 2002, shows little change: 94 per cent of the ANC's support-base is African. Conversely, very few whites support it.

A crystallized racial majority is inimical to democracy if its corollary is the exclusion from power of important minority categories. The question remains, however, whether this configuration is permanent. Only highly speculative answers can be given, but it is clear from the comparative evidence in other racially divided societies that a shift from race-based to ideologically- or class-based parties is a chimerical hope.

A break-up of the ANC-led Alliance is unlikely to lead to changed patterns of voting behaviour. Depending on how strong a breakaway party of the left is, the ANC may be forced to look for allies among other parties, and this may somewhat mitigate the racial configuration of parties, but plausible speculation is impossible.

It is generally agreed that 'winner-take-all' politics is likely to prove fatal to democracy (and, commonly, to stability as well) in divided societies. In theory, South Africa's provision for an electoral system based on proportional representation and the limited extent of decentralization of power to provinces avoid 'winner-take-all' outcomes; but practice, in fact, strongly supports such outcomes.

Moreover, it is not only, or even principally, the operation of these institutions that underpins 'winner-take-all': it is in the very nature of the ANC as a liberation movement with hegemonic aims to concentrate power in its own hands, in fact in a tight little oligarchy centred on the President. It is not merely political power but power over all organs of state, including ostensibly neutral institutions. A combination of patronage and the deliberate extension of political control has ensured that the quest for hegemonic control is far advanced. The serious implication for the quality of democracy in this process is that the dividing line between state and party has become blurred.

In an important article, published in 1991, Marina Ottaway raised the question whether liberation movements like the ANC could convert themselves into political parties operating in a pluralistic democracy framework. Her conclusion was pessimistic:

What characterized liberation movements... was the stress on unity, the rejection of partisan divisions as destructive of the new nation, and the illusion that an entire country could have a single purpose and accept a single representative to speak as the 'mouthpiece of an oppressed nation'... A further difference between liberation movements and parties is that the former are engaged in a Manichean struggle which must end in an absolute victory - 'freedom or death, victory is certain'. Typically, such groups aim at seizing power, wresting it once and for all away from the dominant colonial or white regime, and returning it where it rightfully belongs, to the people of the country. This change is just and irreversible.

It is a slippery slope from belief in such views to the pathology of the failed single-party dominant state. Zimbabwe is the clearest example of such a descent, where Robert Mugabe believes that he and Zanu-PF have a permanent lien on power and that all opposition is illegitimate.

South Africa, however, is not Zimbabwe, and, for reasons that will not be argued here, it is unlikely to follow the same trajectory into despotism and ruination. South Africa's deplorable acquiescence in Mugabe's madness stems ultimately from the fellow feeling by members of the liberation movement old boys club for one another.

Zimbabwe is an extreme case, but it is not hard to discern tendencies in the ANC that reflect its essentially liberation movement character: a strong tendency to equate itself with 'the nation'; a quest for hegemonic control; and a sense of the divine righteousness of its cause. The more it is challenged (or it perceives itself as being challenged) the more strident the ANC's assertion of a claim to be the only authentic expression of the popular will is likely to become.

What would cause such a challenge, and what form might it take? In a monograph entitled Markets, Democracy, and Ethnicity: Toward a New Paradigm for Law and Development (The Yale Law Journal, 108, 1998), Amy L Chua concludes her section on South Africa's democratic prospects thus:

... absent a stunning transformation in black South African economic prospects, powerful pressures will push South Africa toward one or more of the following possible outcomes: an ethnically fuelled antimarket backlash, actions aimed at eliminating the white population, or a retreat from democracy. (p.68)

It is unlikely that attempts will be made to 'eliminate' the white population, but poor economic conditions that cause crime have undoubtedly fuelled large-scale emigration, so much so that it would not surprise me if in a decade's time the white population might be as much as one million less than its current figure of approximately five million; Coloured and Indian emigration may also assume significant proportions.

The warnings in Chua's paradigm may be overdrawn in some respects, but that they contain a grim kernel of reality is undoubted. Failure to reach a growth rate of five per cent that would cut into unemployment could have dire consequences - and South Africa's chances of attaining such a figure appear slim.

Poverty and unemployment are massive, intractable problems, whose solution is not helped by the perverseness of the ANC's having sound macro-economic policies whose potentially beneficial impact tends to be negated by legislation that causes excessive rigidity in the labour market, and slow implementation of the liberalizing aspects of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy.

Frustration at the slow pace of black economic empowerment may tempt the government (not immediately, but some years hence) to take short cuts to compensate for policy failures. These could take several forms, ranging from expropriation of property to (even more) bending of the tender and procurement processes in favour of black empowerment beneficiaries. Affirmative action programmes could be implemented with even greater rigour... the list of possible steps is terrifyingly long.

Contrary to what the ANC believes, liberals wholeheartedly concur with the need to reduce inequalities. Their disagreements stem not from a diehard effort to retain past privilege but from well-founded arguments that inappropriate and, commonly, counter-productive policy instruments are being employed. The specific threat to democracy was famously expressed by de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America (1835) where he describes how the American drive for the principle of equality endangered the other great principle, freedom:

in proportion as equality was more established by the aid of freedom, freedom itself was thereby rendered of more difficult attainment.

Equality and freedom, in other words, stand in a relationship of tension that can be managed only by sensible, ongoing trade-offs.

This article has largely been concerned with fundamental or structural issues affecting the quality of our democracy. Much could be said about weaknesses in the operation of political institutions: for instance, the national legislature has palpably failed in its constitutional obligation to maintain oversight of the executive, including the implementation of legislation and 'any organ of state'. If there were hopes that Parliament would be a significant countervailing power to an overweaning executive they were idle ones. The operation of Parliament, moreover, leaves a lot to be desired on several scores, including the level of debate.

The provincial system has not contributed to strengthening democracy. The system is hardly a hybrid federal-unitary system, as some have argued. Basically it is a unitary system with some federal figleaves. The provinces might theoretically erect 'so many barricades, each one of which must be broken down before any oppressive over-domination can absolutely succeed' (to quote Olive Schreiner's argument for federation). But in practice that has been vitiated by the constitutional weakness of the provinces and the political dominance of the ANC. Pseudo-federal features have not had the slightest effect of federalizing the ANC itself, whose democratic centralism has ensured that all significant posts at provincial level are filled at the behest of the national leadership.

The Proportional Representation electoral system and the prohibition of floor-crossing clause have massively strengthened that leadership in relation to its rank-and-file. Despite current reconsideration, fundamental changes are unlikely.

Nothing in the foregoing should raise suspicions that the author is hankering after the apartheid past. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whatever criticisms I may have of the current regime, South Africa is a vastly better place than it was under apartheid. Moreover, the criticisms should be regarded as constructive. Far-reaching changes in political style are required. Recognition that adversarial and (largely) winner-take-all politics are liable to be fatal to democracy's chances in a divided society would be a welcome start.

The text for a meeting to discuss democratic regeneration might be:

The [tribal] meetings would continue until some kind of consensus was reached.

Unanimity, however, might be an agreement to disagree, to wait for a more propitious time to propose a solution. Democracy meant all men were to be heard, and a decision was taken together as a people. Majority rule was a foreign notion. A minority was not to be crushed by a majority.

Modern South Africa obviously cannot be governed by the contemporary equivalent of a tribal meeting. But Nelson Mandela's words quoted above nevertheless have immense relevance for a chance of making South Africa a successful democracy.